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The Great San Francisco Corkage Debate

San Francisco readers may have noticed a flurry of letters to the wine section of the Chronicle recently about one of this wine drinker's favorite topics: corkage policies.

Specifically, these letters address a controversy (stirred in part by a quote from Vinography in the paper a few weeks ago) over the fact that Pizzeria Delfina, the new venture by Craig and Annie Stoll, does not allow diners to bring their own wine.

I'm very pleased to see that this topic has been of interest and has fueled some public debate on the subject. If you'd like to catch up on the story, here's a series of links to help you do that:

The original mention in the Inside Scoop section of the Wine pages. (You'll find it halfway down through the column.

Letters in response 1/25

Another mention of the controversy.

More letters in response.

It's amazing to me how many of the letters in response to this issue really miss the whole point of the discussion, though, at least from my point of view. Partially that's due to the fact that the mention in the Chronicle was brief, and didn't fully express my argument (perhaps it didn't fully express Craig Stoll's argument either), so I thought I'd give it a little more space here on Vinography and perhaps clear up some of the misperceptions that people have about the issues at stake here.

Here's the background. Stoll has two restaurants side by side:

One is a pizzeria that serves excellent pizza (see my review) and where diners get out for around $25 a person without any wine if they order an appetizer and dessert. There are (if my memory serves me correctly) about two dozen or so wines on the list, all of which are less than $40, some of them considerably less. Additionally, if you like, you are able to order any wine off the main wine list of the restaurant next door. You are not allowed to bring your own wine to this restaurant.

The second restaurant (literally 15 feet away, next door), is, of course, Delfina. An endlessly popular (and rightfully so) San Francisco dining institution that serves great rustic, yet refined Italian food. Here, prices are higher and diners usually get out for around $50 to $70 per person without wine. There is a decent wine list with lots of Italian selections ranging from inexpensive to high-end. Here, there is a corkage fee of $20.

So here's the debate. Why should the pizzeria have a zero corkage tolerance policy, when right next door (same owner, presumably same wine director, presumably same wine distributors, presumably same wine cellar) diners are free to bring their own wine for a modest charge of $20?

Many of the letters to the Chronicle and indeed, even Craig Stoll himself in an e-mail to me after I mentioned my shock at his policy, imply that this is an issue of economics, of a restauranteur's survival in a hard line of business. The argument goes something like this: Stoll should be able to do whatever he needs to in order to make a profit, including preventing penny pinching wine lovers from bringing their own bottles rather than buying one of the modestly priced bottles on the Pizzeria's list.

I call bullshit.

These arguments are so preposterous and illogical because THE ENTIRE POINT of having a corkage fee is to ensure that the restaurant owner makes the profit they need to when diners bring their own wine. Everyone who knows about even the most basic economics of the restaurant business is aware that the biggest margins are in the bar and the wine cellar. Most restaurants simply calculate the average profit that they make on most bottles of wine on their list, round up to the nearest five dollars and set the corkage fee at that price. That way, when some wine lover walks in with their bottle of wine, whether it is Yellow Tail or an '82 Latour, the restaurant will make at least as much money or even more than they would had that person ordered a normal bottle of wine off the list.

It's that simple and it's purely a business calculation for most restaurants. Some restaurants go so far as to put their corkage fee very high (say $50 at the French Laundry) to dissuade customers from bringing their own wines, but even those restaurants know that if someone does bring a bottle, they will not go out of business because of it.

So the second argument here, and the line that Stoll took with the Chronicle when he was interviewed for this story, is that it's his restaurant, his concept of matching food and wine, and he should be able to do whatever he wants.

This is absolutely true. There's no law saying that Stoll has to allow outside wine to his restaurant. He's the owner/chef he gets to make the rules. Even, apparently, if the rules are totally stupid and ultimately a bad business decision.

Before we talk about this from a purely subjective point of view, let's look at it objectively from the standpoint of a business decision. If we take for a given that Stoll wants his restaurant to be profitable and successful, and that profit and success come from more people visiting the restaurant rather than less, having an anti-corkage policy makes zero sense, because it ultimately means that you will alienate some (even if it is just a small portion) of your potential customer base.

This isn't some whiny argument from a wine geek who thinks his wines are better than what he can get at the restaurant. I'm going to continue to go there because I like the food, but the reality is that the there are some people who simply won't. How can it make business sense to drive those people away when you could be charging them a $25 corkage fee (which incidentally is probably twice the profit that the restaurant makes on ANY of the bottles it has for sale at the pizzeria)? It boggles the mind.

So what it comes down to is Stoll simply wanting only certain wines to be served with his pizza. Which is fine, conceptually -- he has some vision as a restauranteur for what he wants the experience to be. But it's rather silly, especially considering that 99% of the other restaurants in the city (fast food chains and taquerias aside) allow you to bring your own wine. Those of you in San Francisco, help me out here. Can you think of any other restaurant in this city, or even in the entire Bay Area that serves wine but has a no corkage policy? I can't.

At the end of the day, as one letter writer to the chronicle pointed out, bringing your own wine to a restaurant is a privilege, not a right. But when every other place in town lets you do it, finding a place that doesn't feels like a slap in the face. To me, Stoll comes out of this looking, instead of like someone with a unique vision for a dining experience, rather like someone who just wants his way, no matter what the facts of the matter are.

His prerogative, our loss.

Comments (30)

GregP wrote:
02.05.06 at 3:32 PM


I am with you on this one. There is absolutely no policy, in any restaurant, that REQUIRES patrons to order wine/alcohol. Why should I, a patron who brings in a nice bottle of MY own choosing of MY own palate preference, be punished and yet a customer who orders a glass of water, FREE of ANY charge, is not an issue at all? Are customers, who only order a glass of water, charged a "supplemental" fee to ensure the restaurant does not go under? Why not? Why don't menues clearly tell you that you must order wine in order for the restuarant to make their profit margins?

When I bring a bottle to a restaurant I make sure to order a bit more food to "compensate" the restaurant and I also leave a really nice tip on top of that. In some cases I bring my own glasses so that the crew there has nothing to break nor clean. Is this bad business? How?

If a restaurant, any restaurant, can't make it without selling wine, then maybe they should not be in business to begin with? There are PLENTY of restaurants in this city and others without an alcohol license and well, they do make a living last time I checked. So, color me unconvinced and call any restaurateur who claims they must charge for wine to make a living either clueless about their business model or simply liars. Take you pick.

Seeing plenty of badly put together wine lists is yet another problem, there is a good number of them where there is absolutely nothing on the list I even want to order. Check out the highly rated Va De Vi in Walnut Creek, incredible food with one of the crappiest wine lists around. At least they allow corkage, kudoes for that.

Maybe we should all go to Delrina Pizzeria for the month of February and order nothing but water, one way to make a point. Enough of us do it and they may change their minds and business practices.

John wrote:
02.05.06 at 9:03 PM

I bring my own wine on rare occasions. Even more rarely, it's someting I made. Since I doubt I would know in advance of someone's no-corkage policy, if I showed up and my wine was barred, I'd find someplace else, and never go to chez no-way again. I only have one vote, but I know how to use it.

Ryan wrote:
02.05.06 at 9:45 PM

Alder - great post, and I'm glad you followed up on what you kicked off with your initial comments.

I specifically don't have an opinion on this one (I choose not to take sides between the owner's-perogative or the diner's-liberty perspectives), but I will offer another economic factor you might not have considered that is surely in the front of Mr. Stoll's mind: turnover.

The simple fact is, wine-drinkers kill the turn, every time. That's a straight forward fact of life for fine dining rooms across the City, and they've learned to live with it. But given a secondary establishment, rooted towards pizza and a lower per check average? The management philosophy will be to push wines by the glass for all the usual reasons - time (diners don't stay to finish a bottle) and cost (same or better margin, smaller inventory on hand).

Look at Pizzeria Delfina's most recently posted menu: 17 bottles, 11 of them available by the glass. The first thing I think when I see a selection like that? The management wants me to eat my food, have a glass of wine, and get the hell out of the way so they can turn the table.

Cos whatever they could make in corkage fees doesn't make up for waiting 20 extra minutes to turn a deuce.

Bradley wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:07 PM

Ryan has got a good point. I come from the land of "wine can't be brought to a restaurant" by law. Even when you tried to work a deal with a joint under the table it always felt like you were a criminal. I sometimes bring my own wine these days. I've been bringing my own food, too. I pack it in plastic re-sealable bowls and just borrow a fork. It's a pretty good deal. A couple restaurants try to suggest I order from the menu but I find it's cheaper to just bring everything from home. As for tipping, I find a a little poem on a napkin usually is well-received.
Bon appetite!

Alder wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:11 PM


Thanks for the comments. Interesting point and definitely one I hadn't considered. But what about the folks who order a bottle of the house stuff? They're going to stay on average as long as those who bring their own wine, and you could argue a well set corkage fee (e.g. twice as high as the average profit on a bottle at the restaurant) would mean that those who brought their own wine would be, minute-for-minute much more profitable than those who bought the restaurant's wine.

If a Pizzeria owner were looking for fast turnover, perhaps he'd do best to not serve alcohol at all, and let people do leisurely drinking somewhere else! I doubt that's Mr. Stoll's mindset, but there would be easier ways of boosting turnover than a no corkage policy in my mind.

sam wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:16 PM

Out on a limb here. I agree with Craig. If I have a successful business then I am not going to let an opiniated minority dictate how I run my restaurant. I have been living in San Francisco for 5 years, and the only time I have ever consumed wine not ordered on the premises has been when I have been dining with Alder. I actually take a great deal of pleasure ordering from a wine list that the restaurant staff are familiar with and which has been specifically chosen to go with the food. (Admmitedly some restaurants are better at this than others).

If you take a wine from your own cellar - how can you be sure it is going to match the food that you end up choosing?

In Europe - in my experience - no one ever does this.

As I eat out several times a week I am talking from experience here.

If you start with wine - where should you stop? Should I take my own maldon or fleur de sel from the Geurand? Should I take my own tea leaves? Should I take my own food (I can cook a hell of a lot better than many of the restaurants I end up dining in).

I know, I know, I don't have a cellar of food, wines that are 'special' and xx years old, etc, and if it was a truly special occasion (and I mean truly special, like my 40th birthday or something) I might ask a restaurant for special permission to bring a very special wine.

But on an every day basis, I am not going to spend my birthday at Delfina Pizzeria.

Alder - please don't think I am trying to fall out with you - and I don't want to appear ungrateful for the wine that you have so kindly provided me with when we have dined together - its just that I don't really see eye to eye with you on this subject. To me it's no big deal. Nothing to get flustered about. It's just a little pizza parlour. You'd be luck to get a seat. The bottle of wine would probably be finished whilst you are still waiting in line on the side walk.

Good luck tomorrow - sorry I wont be there to see you (work doesn't even finish til 6.30)


Alder wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:17 PM


Yes, It's true, we here in California have the luxury of having impassioned debates about this subject, while others in some states and I believe in Canada people are still struggling to be able to take home the half bottle of wine that they paid for with their own money, let alone be able to bring their own wine to dinner.

But that doesn't make this policy any less silly.

Alder wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:41 PM


Even though we're friends that doesn't mean you can't disagree with me! And trust me, I don't take it as ungratefulness in the least. I'll keep bringing wine to our dinners until you stop drinking it! So rest easy. I hope you'll also smile and understand if I pick apart your points a little here.

First off, how would having the same wine policy at both his restaurants be "letting an opinionated minority dictate how he runs his restaurant?" presumeably he thinks enough of that minority to let them bring wine to his other place, why not the Pizzeria?

If Stoll had never, ever allowed a diner to bring a bottle of wine at any of his restaurants, I would still have a problem with it, but it wouldn't be such preposterous thing for him to institute the same policy at his new restaurant.

I understand that this (bringing your own wine) may be a foreign concept to you, and some people because of what they're used to. I live in San Francisco for many reasons, but one prominent one is because of the food and wine culture here, and because of the degree to which wine is a valued part of the dining experience. I love the fact that wine knowledge and appreciation is high in the Bay Area, to the point at which even a hole in the wall Pakistani restaurant in the Tenderloin like Shalimar actually encourages diners to bring their own wine (and beer, I might add). Of course, they're Moslem, so serving wine might be a problem for them religiously (certainly more grounds for a no corkage policy than Stoll has!!!), but instead, recognizing what sort of city they live in, they freely encourage it.

Wine is simply not the same as fleur de sel, or tea, or coffee, or bread or any of the other things that we might be connoiseurs of at home. There is no tradition of eating out publicly and bringing a special carton of any of those things, and while that tradition might not exist elsewhere in the US or the world, it certainly does exist here, and it's surprising and annoying to find a restaurant owner who has decided to fight that for reasons that seemingly make no sense.

Finally, the argument that a wine that a consumer might bring is not "tailored" or "as good a match" to the food as those that a restaurant owner or wine director has chosen is specious at best. Firstly, while this may not be true of me, I know a lot of restaurant diners who know a heck of a lot more about wine than many, many sommeliers or chefs in the city. Second, if this was really an issue, wouldn’t we see a lot more restaurants adopting this sort of policy? And I would think that they might stop serving things like Coke, as well. Despite how much my wife likes a nice cold cola with her pizza, I hardly think that Stoll would suggest that under any circumstances that Coke would be a better match for food than any wine someone might bring.

No worries about tomorrow! It's at a tough time for anyone who works Silicon Valley hours.

sam wrote:
02.05.06 at 10:49 PM

I guess its a cultural thing then, although from all the dining out I have done with a multitude of San Francisco friends (including several who are serious wine fanatics unlike me), never once have I see any one of them bring wine to dinner in a restaurant. Never once in five years. Maybe it is not as widespread as you think in SF neither the tradition that you think it is. Maybe we just move in different circles, though of course I am still grateful for the times when our circles cross in boolean fashion and you allow me to drink your wine!

John wrote:
02.06.06 at 9:11 AM

This is why I love living in the Philadelphia area so much -- a great deal of the restaurants are solely BYOB -- no corkage. It's a beautiful thing!

02.06.06 at 9:28 AM

About a year ago, Ontario opened up its rules to allow customers to bring wine to restaurants that opt-in to the program. Since then, over 1000 restaurants across the province have and from what I've heard, it's bringing these ones good business.

I now find myself picking local restaurants more-often-than-not based on their corkage policy -- and make a specific point of telling them that at the time of reservation and again when the waiter opens my wine.

Hopefully more will catch on that allowing corkage should make them more money in the long-run.

Jean-Louis wrote:
02.06.06 at 9:35 AM

Silly me, I thought the customer is always right. Silly me also thought a restaurant is a service business. The Stoll arguments make absolutely no economic sense. Besides, the pizza is not authentic, as they do not use a wood fired oven. Decent joint, sans plus.

eric wrote:
02.06.06 at 12:41 PM

Perhaps Stoll is smarter than us all and knowingly drafted his corkage policy to inspire this debate focusing widely circulated media attention on his new pizzeria. The end result is that the name is fresh on lots of peoples minds, both the majority that probably dont care about his surprising policy and the minority that do.

Bart wrote:
02.06.06 at 12:45 PM

Down here (San Diego), one of the local restaurants had a no corkage fee policy last May, and we went there 3 times that month, which is a lot for me, since I usually dine out only once a week. As a result, we all got to know the resataurant and the food, and I'm sure we've been back 10 times since.

I'd think that if a restaurant had a no corkage fee night once a week on its slowest night, it might entice some new diners into the restaurant that could turn into regular customers.

Alejandro wrote:
02.06.06 at 2:23 PM

I find it funny that you are annoyed that Stoll doesn't allow you to bring your wine to his pizzeria.
There are other eating establishments in sf that will take you if you must have your wine with their pizza. It's pizza for 'sake! and it's his place. It's not a right that you are missing out on. I love wine and pizza but if you must bring your wine for your special occasion, plan ahead and make a reservation at Delfina. Silly.

Alder wrote:
02.06.06 at 4:43 PM


Thanks for the comments. You're right that there are other places I can bring wine to for pizza -- namely every other pizza restaurant in San Francisco!! So why not Pizzeria Delfina? I know it's not some inherent right, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. I like to drink wine even when it's not a special occasion.

Jim wrote:
02.06.06 at 5:54 PM

How is it the restaurants in Tuscany charge a mere Euro or two over the store price for any bottle of wine you order off of their list.

I'd prefer the restaurant publish a corkage fee and let me make my own choice.


Ryan Freitas wrote:
02.06.06 at 7:50 PM


I do agree with you that there are numerous other means to ensure good turnover - the corkage policy is most likely a tertiary concern for those who would focus on it. I merely provided it as a data point, something that perhaps Mr. Stoll had somewhere in his mind.

You wondered: "But what about the folks who order a bottle of the house stuff? They're going to stay on average as long as those who bring their own wine..." Hmm. Agreed. But with 11 of 17 bottles going by the glass, and knowing his target demographic (which is also spoken to by the price points on the selected wines), I'm willing to bet the whole thing is being played like a game of averages. I'll freely admit that this is a wild supposition, but with a setup like that, I think that you shift bottle sales dramatically towards 3+ tops, with most deuces ordering by the glass. I've a feeling the wine menu, as it is set up, encourages smaller tables to avoid bottle purchases, while preserving the option for larger tables that won't kill the turn.

It's all guesswork on my part, I have a hard time believing Stoll didn't know what he was doing when he (or his managers) set the policy. Just my $0.02.


02.06.06 at 8:11 PM

C.Stoll is of course free to make this decision, but it's a ghastly one.

My view on the topic is probably warped by the degree to which I frequent restaurants with really short lists. Dopo, Tamarindo Antojeria, etc.

That said, like Bart, the ability to bring my own bottles is part of what enables me to frequent a restaurant - eating eight dollar flan, and drinking three dollar cappuccino.

Stoll's bottom-line based explanation reminds me of the good folks at "B" in Oakland; handing a table of six three different versions of their menu and then taking the time to explain that this is because the menus are elaborate and embossed and costly. Some things, I just don't want to hear about.

Assuming that your diners are out to get you, to consume your margin, is at odds with all kinds of notions of hospitality. I can only wish them well.

Alder wrote:
02.06.06 at 9:05 PM


Thanks for the additional clarification and I now see your point more clearly. Yes, two tops in particular are much more likely to not have a bottle and to drink by the glass, and therefore would linger less if they couldn't bring their own.


sam wrote:
02.07.06 at 7:31 AM

all very interesting - on this site it would appear I am in the minority (although eric probably hit the nail on the head by saying the majority dont really care). I have a friend who collects wines, has a cellar and is very knowledgeable abut wine. She would never dream of ordering the wine until everyone has decided upon their meal and she can match her picks accordingly and suit everyones' tastes.
Bringing your own wine entirely misses that part of the equation and diminishes the pleasure of being surprised by a menu, which for me is a large part of the wonder of dining out.

Lenn wrote:
02.07.06 at 6:17 PM

Ultimately, it's the restaurant owner's right to make policy. But I can certainly understand your angst here Alder. You'd really think that any logical person would have the same policy at all of his/her restaurants (especially given the lack of any obvious money-making reason).

This dual policy certainly seems to defy logic. If it were me, I'd just not go back if it were that important to me. I always tell my wife that "There are more than enough restaurants. I don't NEED to come back here"...or anywhere.

David wrote:
02.10.06 at 12:38 AM

I think the issue here is that if they charged the same corkage in the pizza joint as they do next door, it would be higher than any food item on their menu. My guess is that they would garner so much flack from having corkage being the most expensive item on the menu (except wine) that they decided to institute a no-corkage policy. Alternatively, charging less than the full 20 bucks would then open them up to the question of why it was cheaper in one place versus the other. Better glassware maybe or just a rip-off in the more expensive place? A no-win for them, to be sure.

Here in Sydney it's a lot clearer: either a place is BYO for cheap (less than $5 usually), or it is banned unless you know the owner or pre-clear it in advance. Having said that, I definitely prefer to be able to bring my own wine as I do when I am in the USA.

Catherine wrote:
02.10.06 at 10:26 PM

Hmmm...to me, this seems like a tempest in a teacup. I will say that we regularly bring our own wine out to dinner, and appreciate the opportunity to do so.

{Aside - When we realized that this is (mainly) unique to California several years ago, we were shocked. Appalled, even!}

But in the end, I don't really care one way or the other. If I can bring my wine, great. If I can't, and there's something to enjoy on the restaurant's list, also great.

I can certainly understand your POV, Alder -- it seems like, if nothing else, the logic of Stoll's two policies just doesn't add up (or rather smacks of profit-mongering).

But in the end, I know PD serves pretty good wine and, I dunno, even serves it out on the sidewalk, so I guess I net out with Sam on this one.

To me it certainly ain't worth boycotting a good pizza over.

Eric Hall wrote:
02.13.06 at 10:28 AM

To add a "real world" component to the mix, I was actually in the SF neighborhood where Delfina is for dinner last night (Sunday), and my group of six, discussed going to the new pizzeria for dinner, but when I informed them about the "no outside wine" policy, the group immediately opted not to go. Now possiby this was due to the six vintage Russian River Pinot's I was carrying, but for whatever reason, we ended up at "Lime" on Market St, Corkage, $10, per Bottle.

blackhawk wrote:
02.16.06 at 12:39 AM

and for the really crafty? restauranteurs that don't charge corkage for a bottle brought, if you buy a bottle. Since you need to buy a bottle first, you'll likely want a bottle to purchase at least as nice as the stash from home. In the end, you likely buy a nicer bottle than you might otherwise buy, plus you are satisfied that you aren't paying corkage.

and who really wants to pay "corkage" on a screw top anyway?

Kevin wrote:
02.27.06 at 11:48 AM

Pizzeria Delfina has a lot of nerve. Don't they know that me bringing wine still gives them the opportunity to charge for their overpriced pizza.

I especially love it when I bring a nice bottle of Pinot Noir to a restaurant and they give a thimble sized glass to drink it out of.

Good Luck Pizzaria Delfina!

Alder wrote:
02.27.06 at 5:26 PM


I agree it takes a lot of nerve to have a policy like this, but think a lot of people would disagree with you about the pizzas being overpriced. $12 isn't a lot to pay, in my opinion.

Zin_Monster wrote:
02.27.06 at 5:53 PM

Everyone here seems to miss the point of what corkage truely is. If all you can bitch about is what the restaurant charges or doesn't charge then you are really cheap and have no business dining out. Stay at home and drink your cheap swill and stop ruining it for the rest of us. For the most part you should be bringing that "special" bottle, that you have been saving from (when you were married, your trip to France, your first root canal, whatever) and perferably something with a little age on it (not the Kendal Jackson you bought at Safeway on the way to the restaurant). I have witnessed (many, many, many times) the cheapness of people that will run out to buy a $8.99 bottle of Clos du Bois Merlot to avoid paying the "high" price on a wine list. I ask this question to you cheapo's. Did you select the wine to be served at the restaurant, did you maintain the cellar and/or storage facility, do you maintain the glassware, did you print the menus, did you train the staff to be knowledgable of both the wine and service, and finally do you believe in capitalism and paying fair market value for goods and service so the owner of said restaurant can remain in business? If you have issue answering these questions then maybe you are dining at the wrong restaurant(s) and you should spend more time looking and researching a restaurant that meets your needs, or you are just too cheap to dine out and have a nice bottle of wine selected by the restaurant. For every one of you who agrees with a corkage policy there 5, 10, maybe even 20 who are too cheap to admit they are cheap and try to dodge paying for a bottle of wine at any restaurant, as I have witnessed it many times. The bottle of Clos du Bois mentioned above was purchased to "take advantage" of the corkage fee being waved on Tuesday nights, I witnessed it myself. Nobody complains about the $75 corkage fee at French Laundry or the high prices on thier wine list, so why should you?Cheers.

Alder wrote:
02.27.06 at 8:00 PM


Perhaps you didn't read the comments very clearly. No one was complaining about the price of various corkage fees, and very few people saw a corkage policy as a way to save money.

While I tend to agree with you in spirit that people ought to bring decent bottles of wine to a restaurant, corkage shouldn't just be considered appropriate for expensive, special bottles of wine in my opinion. If a restaurant has a corkage fee think people ought to be able to bring whatever bottle they like to the restaurant (though I don’t object to restaurants who stipulate that guests cannot bring bottles that are on the house list). If the restaurant owner has done his or her due diligence, the corkage fee will be set at a price so that it doesn't matter if someone brings a bottle of Blue Nun to the restaurant, they'll still make a profit.

To bring a bottle of $6 Turning Leaf is either ignorance or extreme thrift, and neather can be cured by berating these folks.

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